With indoor dining, movie theaters and museums still closed in many states due to the coronavirus pandemic, people have been finding creative ways to keep themselves entertained this summer — from becoming new plant parents, to trying out new recipes, to even bringing the experience of a movie theater indoors. But one of the easiest (and most inexpensive) ways to get through quarantine may have literally been right under your nose this whole time: reading.
Whether you’ve already been keeping up with the best books of the year or you haven’t cracked open a spine since AP English class, now is the perfect time to explore a new world in the pages of a book. In addition to being a fun and easy way to take a break from screens and social media, reading has been shown to reduce stress levels by up to 68% and improve cognitive development in young people, not to mention it’s a great way to bring families closer together or spend a solo socially distanced day at the park or beach.
But if starting a new novel feels too daunting right now, or if you simply want to expand your reading horizons, our favorite pandemic activity has been reading graphic novels. Graphic novels are full-length works of fiction or nonfiction told through illustration. If you’re thinking, “Hey, isn’t that just a fancy way of saying ‘comic book’?” you’re not entirely wrong, but graphic novels include stories that go beyond just caped heroes battling masked villains to save the universe.
“Graphic novels and comics are a guerilla art form,” says Dimitrios Fragiskatos, owner of Anyone Comics in Brooklyn, New York. “The imagery used in them doesn’t rely solely on the words to convey an idea, nor does that same idea need the artwork to be a specific style or format.” In fact, the best graphic novels for adults, teens and kids are telling some of the most emotionally moving, complex and inclusive stories across all forms of media right now (although, don’t get us wrong, we love a good beat-’em-up comic as well).
“We can find masterpieces in every decade, but what they have in common is that they break convention and expectations,” says Fragiskatos. Here’s our list of some of the best convention-breaking graphic novels across the decades for readers of all ages, from younger kids to adults.
Best graphic novels for adults
‘Watchmen’ Deluxe Edition by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons ($27.43, originally $39.99; amazon.com)
It would be impossible to discuss the best graphic novels without first mentioning “Watchmen,” the DC Comics story in which the existence of costumed crime fighters (and one giant blue superpowered man) changes the course of American history. The book explores complex themes of nihilism, corruption and morality, and through its gritty prose, political satire and striking visuals, it redefined what a “superhero comic” could be.
Today, it’s lauded as not only one of the best comics of all time but one of the best pieces of literature (full stop), even spawning a 2009 film adaptation of the same name; prequel comic series, titled “Before Watchmen” ($124.43; amazon.com); sequel comic series, titled “Doomsday Clock” (preorder for $35.99, originally $39.99; amazon.com); and an HBO sequel television show.
We recommend springing for this gorgeous hardcover Deluxe Edition, which features pages of rare sketches and script notes (a must for collectors) and looks great on any bookshelf, but if you’re looking to save a little cash and don’t mind missing out on the extras, there’s also the Amazon bestselling 2019 paperback edition ($14.99, originally $24.99; amazon.com).
‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson ($20.49, originally $29.95; amazon.com)
This 2003 autobiographical coming-of-age story written and illustrated by Craig Thompson explores young love, sibling rivalry and faith, and is filled with rich, beautiful details in both its prose and art. Thompson uses thick, expressive brushstrokes that make the book’s wintry Wisconsin setting pop, and flashbacks are expertly woven throughout the narrative to tell an unforgettable multilayered narrative with heart and honesty.
‘Saga’ Compendium One by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples ($43.05, originally $59.99; amazon.com)
“Saga” may only be halfway complete, but it already more than earns a spot on this list. The sprawling sci-fi series follows star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko, whose respective home planets of Landfall and Wreath are at war. After Alana gives birth to their interspecies daughter, Hazel (who narrates the entire story from an as yet unknown time in the future), the couple is forced to go on the run to evade those who are hunting them down.
This 1,300-plus-page tome collects all 54 issues of the series so far, but if you want to read “Saga” in smaller chunks, the series is also collected in three stunning hardcover editions that include bonus material (starting at $32.77, originally starting at $49.99; amazon.com) and nine paperback volumes (starting at $9.19; amazon.com). We promise you’ll be clamoring for more as soon as you finish.
‘Black Hole’ by Charles Burns ($13.79, originally $19.95; amazon.com)
When a new sexually transmitted disease starts spreading in a Seattle high school, causing students to grow horns or tails or suffer from other disfigurements, those affected are cast out while others flee out of fear and self-preservation. Like a teen soap gone terribly, terribly wrong, drugs, sex and murder fill the pages of this book, which ultimately leaves behind a nuanced portrait of adolescent ennui.
‘House of X/Powers of X’ by Jonathan Hickman & Pepe Larraz (starting at $44.99; amazon.com)
Whether you’ve only seen the “X-Men” movies, watched the ’90s animated show or just encountered references to the superheroes in pop culture, you haven’t gotten the whole X-Men X-perience until you’ve read them in comic form. But if the thousands of X-Men comic stories told since the 1960s have intimidated you out of jumping in, Marvel’s “House of X/Powers of X” is a great place to start.
This new X-Men story imagines a world in which mutants have established their own island nation of Krakoa and are finally done bending to the whims of humans, instead controlling major pharmaceuticals beneficial to humanity, which allows their independent nation to be the most powerful in the world and a safe haven for mutantkind. But with greater power comes greater risks, and the X-Men soon discover the extent to which humans will go to destroy them.
‘March’ (Trilogy Slipcase Set) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell ($44.99, originally $49.99; barnesandnoble.com or $30.97 on Kindle; amazon .com)
This gorgeous slipcase set collects all three volumes of “March,” which details the civil rights movement through the perspective of late congressman John Lewis. A recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award (the first graphic novel to have the honor), “March” is an absolutely vital piece of literature that’s perhaps more relevant now than ever, offering a personal account of history you won’t find in any textbooks.
‘The Doom Patrol Omnibus’ by Grant Morrison ($108.75, originally $150; amazon.com)
“In the case of breaking convention, ‘Doom Patrol’ was truly a standout,” says Fragiskatos. “In 1963, while the newsstands were populated with adventures of gods who can move planets and billionaire philanthropist adventurers having adventures dressed like bats, there was a comic whose characters wouldn’t be impersonated by children, and action figures wouldn’t be available until half a century later.”
An all-time favorite of Fragiskatos’, “Doom Patrol” reinvented the superhero landscape not just in the ’60s but also in the ’80s, when comics mastermind Grant Morrison debuted a rebooted version of the series that featured the “people who society has turned its back on,” explains Fragiskatos.
If the omnibus price is a little too steep for you, or if you’re curious about the other creators’ takes on the Doom Patrol, check out the issues that started it all ($29.99; amazon.com) or the first volume of Gerard Way’s 2017 series ($11.99, originally $17.99; amazon.com).
‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters’ by Emil Ferris ($27.84, originally $39.99; amazon.com)
Drawn on lined notebook paper with Bic pen over the course of six years, this haunting, form-bending graphic novel is equal parts murder mystery, love letter to horror cinema and examination of political unrest, exploring both make-believe monsters and the real-life monsters of the past and present. Every page of this 700-page book is a visual feast, and what’s even more incredible? The author-artist created the entire book while experiencing and recovering from West Nile-induced paralysis.
Best graphic novels for teens
‘DeadEndia: The Watcher’s Test’ by Hamish Steele ($10.49, originally $14.95; amazon.com)
The DeadEnd theme park hosts more than just cheap thrills for its staff and visitors — the wizards, demons and ghosts here are 100% real. Hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure, often within the same page, this inclusive and colorful graphic novel delivers fun action while exploring the importance of found family.
If you love this first book in the series (which we’re positive you will), be sure to check out the second, “The Broken Halo” ($11.99, originally $16.95; amazon.com), in preparation for the forthcoming Netflix animated series.
‘Nimona’ by Noelle Stevenson ($13.39, originally $14.99; amazon.com)
This modern fantasy epic features dragons, shape-shifters and magic of all kinds, and it mashes up time periods in a really fun and new way — think sword and sorcery and smartphones. It’s filled with memorable characters, including the titular protagonist — an impulsive girl who serves as the sidekick to supervillain Ballister Blackheart and wishes to be evil herself — that will delight teen readers.
‘The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins’ by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy & Carey Pietsch ($11.17, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
Based on the hit podcast of the same name, this hilarious graphic novel showcases the utter joy of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons with absurd fantastical jokes, pop culture references and otherworldly action. Some of the narrative’s best moments come from the authors (the McElroy family) breaking the fourth wall, as the characters in the book — a high-elf wizard, a dwarf cleric and a human fighter — are the authors’ D&D characters mixed with their real-life personalities. While readers familiar with D&D will immediately pick up on the framed narrative and role-playing humor, those who have never even heard of D&D will still have a blast — and may be tempted to start a game of their own after reading.
You can pick up the other books in the “Adventure Zone” series, starting at $8.06, here.
‘Hot Comb’ by Ebony Flowers ($15.59, originally $21.95; amazon.com)
This collection of short comic stories by Ebony Flowers is set in a women’s hair salon and offers coming-of-age vignettes sure to be relatable to teen readers. While the topic of young Black girls’ hair links the stories to one another, the themes of the book range from mental health to race to the pressures of school. Between stories, Flowers mimics old-school hair product ads using her unique art style that serve to both thematically tie the stories together and shine a satirical light on the world’s obsession with Black women’s hair. This one’s a must-read, especially for teen readers.
‘They Called Us Enemy’ by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott & Harmony Becker ($17.99, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
Many of us know actor George Takei as Sulu from the “Star Trek” franchise, but before he became the fictional world-famous USS Enterprise helmsman, Takei was a young boy imprisoned in World War II concentration camps with his family. This extremely personal and honest account of his fraught childhood offers an important point of view not often seen in textbooks or media, and it’s a harrowing but inspiring tale of what it means to be American.
‘Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty’ by G. Neri & Randy DuBurke ($13.33, originally $16.95; amazon.com)
“Yummy,” inspired by real events that took place in Chicago in the early ’90s, follows a young boy named Roger who becomes fixated on piecing together the life of his late classmate Robert “Yummy” Sandifer. The mystery surrounding Yummy’s death intensifies as Roger discovers a possible connection between Yummy and a gang Roger’s brother belongs to. This tragic, unforgettable story about growing up, morality and gun violence may be a decade old, but its themes are just as pertinent in 2020.
Best graphic novels for kids
‘The Witch Boy’ by Molly Knox Ostertag ($11.62, originally $12.99; amazon.com)
Young Aster belongs to a magical family in which the girls become witches and the boys become shape-shifters. Sounds awesome, right? Well, there’s just one little problem: Aster, a boy, feels more like a witch than a shape-shifter, but if he defies his birthright and family tradition, he could be cast out from his family forever. This emotional, magical story will grab young readers’ attention while helping teach them the importance of acceptance and love, both more powerful than any spell.
You can snag the rest of the books in this magical trilogy, starting at $9.29, here.
‘Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy’ by Tui T. Sutherland & Mike Holmes ($5.99, originally $12.99; amazon.com)
The “Wings of Fire” book series by Tui T. Sutherland, New York Times bestsellers, come to colorful, magical life in this first graphic novel adaptation. A mysterious prophecy foretells the end of a yearslong war between dragon tribes, but who will ultimately take the throne?
Whether this is your little one’s introduction to the dragonets of Pyrrhia or they’ve been longtime fans of the novels, they’ll love exploring this fantastical world with eye-popping illustrations by artist Mike Holmes. There’s no better time than now to travel to another land — not to mention, what’s not to love about talking dragons?
You can grab the rest of the books in this high-flying series, starting at $11.53, here.
‘Sisters’ by Raina Telgemeier ($7.91, originally $10.99; amazon.com)
“In the 2000s, author Raina Telgemeier gave us a story of her childhood wearing braces and tapped into an audience that graphic novels previously didn’t acknowledge,” says Fragiskatos, referring to the super-popular 2010 graphic novel “Smile.”
Since “Smile,” Telgemeier has written and illustrated a number of graphic novels, but with nearly 3,000 reviews on Amazon, it’s safe to say “Sisters” is one of her best. This poignant road trip story speaks to the excitement and disappointment of new siblings and the ultimate power of family, featuring Telgemeier’s charming voice and clean, fun art.
‘Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice’ by Mike Maihack ($11.39, originally $14.99; amazon.com)
What do you get when you mix sci-fi adventure with Egyptian mythology? Mike Maihack’s “Cleopatra in Space,” which, as its title suggests, stars a young Cleopatra, who must grapple with being flung into the future, an evil space dictator and (maybe scariest of all) school. Cleopatra is joined by an eclectic cast of side characters on her action-packed journey through space and time that will excite any young reader.
You can grab the rest of the books in this out-of-this-world series, starting at $10.59, here.
‘Primer’ by Jennifer Muro, Thomas Krajewski & Gretel Lusky ($9.79; amazon.com)
In “Primer,” teen protagonist Ashley discovers powers after covering herself in a unique set of body paints. (Hey, beats getting bitten by a spider!) But Ashley’s new paint powers come at a price: being pursued by the mysterious, shadowy government agency that created that paint. After having bounced from foster home to foster home before finally finding the people she can call family, she’ll now do anything to protect them.
“Primer” is an inspiring (and downright cool) book for your little one — as one reviewer raves, “My 8-year-old said he would give this book a 1,000-star rating.” Who can argue with that?
‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ Graphic Novel Collection by Raina Telgemeier, Gale Galligan & Ann M. Martin ($54.83, originally $76.93; amazon.com)